d. F.W. Murnau / Germany / 90 mins.
Alt: "The Last Laugh"
Note: The following review discusses the ending of the film.
Emil Jennings, as the old hotel porter in F.W. Murnau's Der Letzte Mann, commands attention. He is tall and rotund, proud of his profession and regal in his presentation, the sort of working class employee who simply loves what he does and perhaps receives a paycheck only incidentally. The film is the story of his downfall, an undoing from disinterested boss who removes him from his position as doorman and relocates him to the washroom. And with that, the nameless porter loses his self-worth and the clothes that made him feel kingly even if he wasn't compensated as such. He goes to great lengths to hide this reality from those whose respect he desires, and as these things are wont to go, he will soon face the seemingly bottomless pit of his own desolation.
This is one of cinema's few films to be told in virtual silence, produced almost exclusively through its cinematography, editing, and performance, with only one intertitle and a few diegetic words in the actual inner-workings of the film. It was a bold and powerful experiment even in 1924, when silent cinema was the only possibility, and rightly it has found its place in the annals of history. But even if it had not found its way into canon, even if it were sitting on a dusty shelf in some rural German studio factory and only discovered through an accident and watched by those with little to no understanding of film history, I have no doubt it would still resonate as a profound experience. It is one of Murnau's masterpieces and, subsequently, one of cinema's great treasures.
I've never wavered in my contention that one of the most (if not the most) difficult film genres to pull off is silent melodrama. The stakes are often too high, the stories often too histrionic. In many silent dramas, the cogs don't turn at the same speed — the story spins in underdeveloped slowness while the acting, spinning bombastically, attempts to fill the void. Murnau earned his way into the pantheon of extraordinary directors for his ability to bring a crucial equilibrium to silent dramas, a balance and steadiness in the narrative and performance while confidently incorporating bold and audacious production techniques. For Der Letzte Mann he was aided by the great cinematographer Karl Freund, a workhorse of expressionism in Germany. The film is as well known for its famously untethered camera as it is for its lack of intertitles; in key moments of emotional development, Freund's camera leaves the tripod for an early makeshift version of a stedicam, moving across the floor of the hotel or down the street in luxurious and dreamlike tracking shots that follow the porter or display an avant-garde sensibility in point-of-view, the likes of which cinema had seen very little of until that point.
Much of Der Letzte Mann feels like cross-hairs positioned over your heart. It is an epic downfall of a modest man, and Jennings's performance is tremendously affecting, among the best because it is entirely in pantomime (with the assistance of a narrowly tailored film score, which Murnau oversaw to ensure it captured the emotion on screen). The screenplay, by longtime Murnau collaborator Carl Mayer, is tight, engrossing, and unrelenting. The film missteps once, and, this must be admitted, rather egregiously. Der Letzte Mann stands as pure tragedy, of the ilk where the ending is a foregone conclusion — except in this case it is not. The single intertitle the film possesses arrives after we believe we've witnessed the utter destruction to a man's soul to inform us, rather shockingly, we haven't:
Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.
The word "author" is questionable in this context. The film's bathetic ending is credited to both Murnau and to Ufa, the production studio. To whom it belongs is largely beside the point. The porter, surprisingly (even shockingly), is saved from his life of destitution by a fluke inheritance, which enables him to return to the hotel donning expensive threads and treating his co-workers and friends to champagne and caviar, riding away in a carriage with a hearty laugh filling the air. In some respects the intertitle drips with sarcasm — "quite improbable" indeed — and even if it was the idea of Murnau, the phrasing suggests a reluctance on his part, the sense that he knew much better as a storyteller. The decision affects the film as a total experience, but it doesn't negate the hard-fought production that comes before it, assuring masterpiece status regardless. Still, the overtly happy ending is inharmonious to the preceding narrative and to the nightmarish expressionism brought to life by Murnau and Freund, who used the tools of a dream to make a poignant and insightful observation on society's dispassionate cruelty. The final scenes completely and unwisely invert that dynamic, no matter how strongly Murnau suggests that life would not play out in the way of the film's finale.
This is why although the German-to-English translation of Der Letzte Mann is "The Last Man," the film is known in English as "The Last Laugh." For authenticity's sake, I do wish it was instead referred to as "The Last Man," but with more than eighty years since its U.S. release, I doubt the change will arrive any time soon. Both titles convey an important degree of ambiguity — the concept of "the last man" applies the porter as the actual last (or, previous) man to hold the job and applies both to his inner depression and the social statement Murnau makes about an industrial society that abandons its elderly. "The Last Laugh" holds that same degree of ambiguity in the way it first represents the absence of laughter (the porter's depression) and the one-upmanship bestowed on him through his inheritance (in his fortune he literally gets the last laugh against those who wronged him). But because I'm someone who doesn't believe the coda is necessary, if possible I would have preferred distributors stick to the more existential title of "The Last Man." It encapsulates the film, and perhaps Murnau's legacy, more appropriately.
26 July 2009
d. F.W. Murnau / Germany / 90 mins.